Opinion: Lessons of 2017 elections aren’t good for Republicans

3:00 p.m Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 Opinion
Jahi Chikwendiu/AP
Danica Roem, center, a Democrat who ran for Virginia's House of Delegates against GOP incumbent Robert Marshall, is greeted by supporters as she prepares to give her victory speech Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Manassas, Va. Roem, a former journalist, is set to make history as the first openly transgender person elected and seated in a state legislature in the United States.

There is no good news from Tuesday’s elections for Republicans.

Locally, they lost a pair of state House seats in which just a year ago Democrats didn’t even bother to compete. They saw a pair of Democrats advance to a runoff in a state Senate seat previously held by one of the GOP’s gubernatorial hopefuls. They made no breakthroughs in Democratic strongholds. Even their lone candidate for Fulton County Commission chairman didn’t make a runoff against two Democratic opponents.

Looking outside Georgia, the wipe-out in Virginia appears to be of epic proportions. Republicans entered Tuesday with a super-majority — 66 of 100 seats — in that state’s House of Delegates. It appears the GOP will have no more than 50 seats after this election. That’s a stunning reversal of fortune.

There are reasons to think those statehouse contests collectively tell us more about national trends than Virginia’s statewide races, which were dominated more by personalities and issues (such as the removal of Confederate statues) that may not be as prominent in 2018. Not that the statewide contests went any better for the GOP: Democrats won races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general by comfortable margins.

The question is what this means for next year and beyond. Here, Democrats might want to tone down the exuberance just a tad. What is unquestionably bad news for Republicans may not hold lasting meaning for Democrats.

Going back to Virginia, which held more than Georgia’s handful of special elections, it’s not clear we saw anything more than the solidifying of that state as a blue one. There’s also this bit of history: The past five presidents in their first year watched Old Dominion voters elect a governor from the opposite party. As you know, the last three presidents (Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton) won re-election anyway.

So, what are the big takeaways? Nationally, I think it’s similar to what we’ve seen in other off-year elections over the past decade or two: The minority party tends to have more motivation. The question is why. And I think the answer is neither party is truly resonating with the American people right now.

Think about it: Democrats lost big in 2010 after racking up big, but largely unpopular, legislative wins on health care and the economic stimulus. Republicans now are being blamed for inaction on health care and, potentially, taxes. But while Republicans will be in the worst trouble if they don’t notch some victories between now and next November, I don’t think it’s clear in broad terms that Americans want what the GOP is selling more now than what Democrats were selling then.

Both parties are generally guilty of working on old agendas, with marginal near-term benefit, rather than deeply addressing the needs of the moment. That translates to popular disapproval of the party in power, whether its mistake is overreach or underachievement. So the pendulum swings back to the minority … but not for long.

That doesn’t mean either party is supposed to abandon its traditional philosophical approach; there’s always going to be a party advocating more government intervention and another advocating less. It does, however, mean each party desperately needs to apply its philosophy in ways different from the 1960s (Democrats) or 1980s (Republicans). There’s a constituency for new answers, if there’s a party that can offer them.

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